It seemed like a typical congressional meeting for the Republic of Texas. Senators and the president gathered in the center of a Bryan, Texas, meeting hall, surrounded by public onlookers, to debate issues of the national currency, develop international relations and celebrate the birthday of one of their oldest members.
But this wasn't 1836, and this would be no ordinary legislative conference. Minutes into the meeting a man among the onlookers stood and moved to open the hall door, letting in an armed and armored force of the Bryan Police Department, the Brazos County Sheriff's Office, the Kerr County Sheriff's Office, Agents of the Texas District Attorney, the Texas Rangers and the FBI.
In the end, at least 20 officers corralled, searched and fingerprinted all 60 meeting attendees, before seizing all cellphones and recording equipment in a Valentine's Day 2015 raid on the Texas separatist group.
"We had no idea what was going on," said John Jarnecke, president of the Republic of Texas. "We knew of nothing that would warrant such an action."
The raid was a response to legal summons sent by Republic of Texas members to a Kerr County judge and bank employee, demanding they appear in the Republic's court at the Veterans and Foreign Wars building in Bryan the day the officers stormed in. Jarnecke's group, the subject of a maintains a small working government, including official currency, congress and courts.
"You can't just let people go around filing false documents to judges trying to make them appear in front of courts that aren't even real courts," said Kerr County sheriff Rusty Hierholzer, who led the operation.
He acknowledged he used a "show of force," grouping officers from city, county state and federal law enforcement to serve a search warrant for suspicions of a misdemeanor crime. He said he had worries that some extremists in the group could become violent, citing a 1997 incident when 300 state troopers surrounded an armed Republic leader for a weeklong standoff.
"We've had years of bad press, but we're not those people," said Jarnecke of the '97 incident. "But yes, we are still making every attempt to get independence for Texas and we're doing it in a lawful international manner."
The Republic has a lengthy list of qualms with the federal government, among them that Texas was illegally annexed in 1845. But most of their complaints have to do with the behavior of the American legislature and executive. Robert Wilson, a senator in the Republic, equated politicians in Washington D.C. to the "kings and emperors" of the past, and sees Texas independence as part of a worldwide movement for local control.
"This is the century for colonialist ambitions to be reversed," the 78-year-old pastor said. "I've watched a lot of things happen, and the people of the world are fed up. The spirit of the world right now is: make things smaller, move governments closer to home, take back self-rule."
Jarnecke said he was being taxed by a foreign government that he feels doesn't represent him, and protested having to fund bank bailouts and foreign wars.
"According to the U.S. Constitution, the only place any army should be is guarding our own borders, not invading and trying to impose their will on every other country of the world," Jarnecke said.
Still, he and Wilson said their group would not resort to violence, but is working through world courts to get international recognition of an independent Texas. They said their methods are legal, but Sheriff Hierholzer contests that.
"We've had a lot of dealings with Republic of Texas members in the past here, too, flooding the court with simulated documents," he said. "I don't have any problem with them going back to the Republic of Texas but they need to do it through the proper legal channels."
The judge and banker summoned to the Republic's court had been involved in the foreclosure of a member's Kerr County house. The invalid court summon was signed by Susan Cammak, the Kerr County homeowner, and David Kroupa, a Republic of Texas judge from Harris County.
A search warrant, photographed and emailed by a Republic of Texas member before her phone was confiscated, accuses the two of "simulating legal process." It also authorizes the seizure of all computers, media storage, software, cell phones and paper documents. Hierholzer said the seized devices will be downloaded and reviewed to determine if others conspired in the creation and issuance of false court documents.
Police searched and fingerprinted each person at the meeting, but they did not perform cheek-swab DNA testing as the warrant allowed.
No arrests were made in the raid, but the case is still under investigation, Hierholzer said. The FBI and Texas Rangers would not comment.
Jarnecke acknowledged that legislation and court summons issues by the Republic have no real effect, but said the group was close to taking their case to an international court—they haven't yet selected which. He hopes that will be the first step in rallying for Texas independence.
"I'm positive we will get out independence back at some point in time," he said. "Now we're just trying to nip things in the bud ahead of time to make sure the people are the ones that have the power when it happens, not the government."